LA Weekends: Carmel

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We’ve done way too much traveling in California to have never driven down Highway 1–the famous winding coastal road that takes you down hundreds of miles of dramatic cliffs and stunning ocean views. It’s one way to get between LA and San Francisco, unfortunately it’s not a very fast way, and our weekend trips are always crunched for time. So this time, we planned a trip where Highway 1, and the scenery of Big Sur, would be a destination.

But Highway 1 would have to wait until the end, because Friday night, we had dinner reservations in downtown Carmel by the Sea, as the town is officially known, where we’d be staying for the weekend. We were a bit concerned when we looked up the address and got an intersection–like it didn’t have an address. As it turns out, nothing in Carmel has a street address. Just getting an intersection isn’t that helpful when you’re just trying to park, but on foot, it makes a lot more sense–Carmel is the kind of place you’re supposed to walk around and explore.

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[one_fifth][three_fifth]We quickly found our destination, the Mundaka, a tapas restaurant, despite the absence of a proper address. We entered to find a lively Friday-night atmosphere and a friendly, local waitstaff. Quickly after we ordered our first dishes, they were placed piping-hot on the table, along with a pitcher of the restaurant’s signature sangria.

We opened with some bacon-wrapped date that we really should have closed with because there was no way they could be topped. But everything else came close. We pressed on to an array of croquettes, meatballs and seafood–all fresh, organic, local, and delicious. If anything could best the appetizer, it’d be the desserts. Though seemingly basic–espresso poured over ice cream; salted-chocolate with toast–they both managed to be exponentially more than the sum of their parts. The latter especially has haunted our dreams ever since.
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[one_fifth][three_fifth]We stayed the weekend at the Hofsas House, one of the oldest and largest in Carmel. Conveniently located just a couple blocks from downtown, we found ourselves returning often between activities just so we could relax on the incredibly comfortable beds while letting the ocean breeze drift in through the top half of the room’s dutch door. At night, we closed the door and lit the wood-burning fireplace, and in the morning we had coffee and danishes with the hotel’s friendly owner. She told us how her grandmother first came to buy property and slowly built it over the years. She was happy to point out there is not a Holiday Inn to be found in Carmel–and we were happy to notice.

In fact, there is hardly a chain to be found in Carmel, and the few we did spot were cleverly disguised with wooden signs. This again added to the walking-city experience–we didn’t spend a second walking through fast-food parking lots or past blank supermarket facades.

Thank goodness, because our first activity on Saturday was the Carmel Food Tour, a walking–and eating–tour of some of Carmel’s best restaurants and shops. We were advised–at least, one of us was–not to wear heels, as there is a city ordinance forbidding them on sidewalks. Our tour guide showed us her permit to break this old rule. Carmel is a funny little place.[/three_fifth][one_fifth_last][/one_fifth_last]

[one_fifth][three_fifth]We started the tour at The Cheese Shop, where before the tour even started, the owner and staff were pushing free samples of fine cheeses on us. We were happy to accept. The way they talked about their many cheeses reminded us of wine country, but someone it feels less pretentious to talk cheese, even if this particular varietal was imported from a particular region of France and aged to perfection.

We then moved to the Cassanova Restaurant, which served an incredible gnocchi in the room where Vincent Van Gogh is said to have taken his last meals. Entering what looks like a small cabin, we emerged into a large and winding series of rooms and patios that make up the restaurant, each meticulously decorated to make it feel like you’re in another time and place, a million miles from Los Angeles.
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[one_fifth][three_fifth]Next we stopped by a deli, Salumeria Luca, where we sampled an array of salamis and other cured meats with a pairing of wine and a bit of gelato to finish it off. As lunchtime approached, the line at the counter sprawled–clearly this where the locals go to get their meats and we could see why.[/three_fifth][one_fifth_last][/one_fifth_last]

[one_half][/one_half][one_half_last]We then stopped into a specialty olive oil store, The Bountiful Basket, where we tasted around a dozen oils and vinaigrette, including some store-made fruit-juice vinaigrette that would outshine anything you put them on–especially the cherry flavor. Note to everyone: more cherry everything.[/one_half_last]

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[one_fifth][three_fifth]Then we moved onto pizza at the casual La Bicyclette restaurant–another clear local favorite, with a line waiting out the door. We were greeted by the chef, who was excited to talk about his most-ordered item: the wood-fired pizza. We tried three different pizzas: prosciutto and arugula, mushroom, and cheese. Hard to say which one we would choose if we weant back–you can’t go wrong here.[/three_fifth][one_fifth_last][/one_fifth_last]

[one_fifth][three_fifth]The great thing about the food tour was that our guide, Staci, seemed much more interested in showing off the cool parts about her town than in pleasing some chamber of commerce. This was apparent especially in places like the Figge Cellars tasting room and art gallery, where the owner handed her the free glass of wine that comes with being a wine-club member. “I didn’t realize she was going to come here every day!” he joked.

We finished off the tour with some fancy chocolates and a nap back at the hotel.
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[one_fifth][three_fifth]That night we planned to have dinner in Monterey, so we arrived a little early to walk around and have a coffee at the Cafe Lumiere. When you walk in, it smells like there’s a movie theater concession stand just around the corner. Because there is. The cafe shares a space with a cool movie theater. But the cafe had fantastic coffee and lots of comfortable seating–this is definitely a place we’d spend a lot of time in if we lived in the area.

Soon we made the drive along the bay until we reached the Fandango Restaurant in Pacific Grove. Living in LA, we’ve grown partial to small restaurants with insanely small menus–restaurants that only sell grilled cheese or waffles or whathaveyou. Fandango, however, was a large space with a large menu. But our trepidation quickly faded. Everywhere we landed, we found something delicious, from the opening French Onion Soup to our sizable paella and steak entrees to the chocolate mousse dessert. Fandango is the kind of place you could take a date or your family or.. us. Someone, take us back!
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[one_fifth][three_fifth]Sunday morning we energized with some coffee and mini cinnamon rolls from the Carmel Coffee House, tucked into one of Carmel’s quiet, hidden courtyards, then headed off to the famous Cannery Row. [/three_fifth][one_fifth_last][/one_fifth_last]

[one_fifth][three_fifth]Our first stop was the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We headed straight for the sea otters when we arrived, just in time for a feeding. (The aquarium has a free service that will text you whenever feedings occur–highly recommended!) Some other incredible sights included a circular room where a school of fish swims around your head, and an enormous tank filled where sharks and sea turtles swim inches from your face. Also the jellyfish. And the penguins. Really, the whole thing is a highlight. See it, see it, see it.[/three_fifth][one_fifth_last][/one_fifth_last]

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[one_half][/one_half][one_half_last]We could hardly bare to leave, so when we did, we headed straight for the Cannery Row Brewing Company. They only have a couple of house brews, but the beer list is excellent, and they offer a large menu of bar food, which satisfied our large appetites. Of course, we saved a little room for the nearby candy store at the pier and some chocolate-covered bacon. Does this area have a thing for bacon or do we? Probably both.[/one_half_last]

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[one_fifth][three_fifth]Sadly, as our Sunday was drawing to a close, we had to get on the road. Thankfully, that road, finally, was Highway 1, where just south of Carmel by the Sea we encountered some of the most breathtaking scenery we have seen in our lives.

Our first stop was Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, where we hiked a short trail through the woods before ending up in a pristine bay with no trace of civilization in sight, unless you include the dozens of seals and their newborn babies. As we kept walking, we felt like we were in some sort of ocean-front Lord of the Rings scenery. Truly gorgeous.
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[one_fifth][three_fifth]We then continued the drive into Big Sur, where we aimed to hit Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park by sunset. We stopped a number of times along the road to look around and take pictures. Even when we spotted some ordinary cows along the road–against the backdrop of Big Sur, they look impossibly like wild horses. It’s just that kind of place.
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[one_fifth][three_fifth]Finally we made it. We stopped to walk along a trail, passing a cove and a waterfall, before reaching the bench where we watched the last of the light fade from Big Sur. Our weekend in Carmel thus came to a close, and we begun the long and windy drive back to LA, where we anxiously await our next weekend adventure.
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ESTABLISHMENTS MENTIONED AND RECOMMENDED:
[one_fourth]MUNDAKA
7th AVE San Carlos St
Carmel, CA 93921
(831) 624-7400[/one_fourth]
[one_fourth]HOFSAS HOUSE
San Carlos St
Carmel, CA 93921
(831) 624-2745[/one_fourth]
[one_fourth]THE CHEESE SHOP
Carmel Plaza
Carmel, CA 93921
(831) 625-2272[/one_fourth]
[one_fourth_last]CASANOVA
5th Ave
Carmel, CA 93923
(831) 625-0501[/one_fourth_last]

[one_fourth]SALUMERIA LUCA
Dolores St
Carmel, CA 93921
(831) 625-0264[/one_fourth]
[one_fourth]LA BICYCLETTE
29 Dolores St
Carmel, CA 93923
(831) 622-9899[/one_fourth]
[one_fourth]CAFE LUMIERE
365 Calle Principal
Monterey, CA 93940
(831) 920-2451[/one_fourth]
[one_fourth_last]CARMEL COFFEE HOUSE
South side of Ocean Ave.
Carmel, CA 93921
(831) 626-2095[/one_fourth_last]

[three_fourth]This trip was made possible with the assistance of the Hofsas House. Many thanks to Carrie Theis, Marci Bracco, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.[/three_fourth][one_fourth_last][/one_fourth_last]


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